Be careful overseas, State Department warns

Tourists eat breakfast at a coffee shop in the old mining town of Real de Catorce, Mexico. “Police involvement in criminal activity is both legendary and true in Mexico,” the State Dept. warned.
Tourists eat breakfast at a coffee shop in the old mining town of Real de Catorce, Mexico. “Police involvement in criminal activity is both legendary and true in Mexico,” the State Dept. warned.Guillermo Arias / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

As if you needed reminding: It's dangerous out there. And if your parents' warnings that the world is full of malevolent people and mishap-prone places didn't stick, the State Department is ready to fill the void.

From the spectacular to the mundane, while terrorism grabs headlines, most problems faced by Americans abroad have nothing to do with al-Qaida but rather cutthroat con artists, corrupt officers and dismal drivers.

The colorful quirks of foreign lands, be they unscrupulous cabaret girls in Cyprus or the arbitrary enforcement of unwritten laws in Laos, are laid bare each year in safety and security reports compiled by State Department analysts for every country on Earth.

The department puts them online, mainly for employees of U.S. firms doing business abroad but are available to anyone. According to this year's updates:

  • "Driving in Qatar is (like) participating in an extreme sport."
  • "Police involvement in criminal activity is both legendary and true in Mexico."
  • "Be aware of drink prices" in Croatia's gentlemen's clubs, where tourists can "unknowingly run up exorbitant bar bills, sometimes in the thousands of dollars."

These little publicized assessments venture beyond the bland, carefully worded travel advice the State Department is normally known for, and are often downright undiplomatic.

The Mexican Embassy in Washington, for example, objected to the characterization of police corruption, calling it an "unfortunate cliche." "Things are changing in Mexico for the good," spokesman Rafael Laveaga maintained.

But unflattering descriptions of countries are not uncommon.

"The tragedy of Haiti is that Haitians have become great leaders in every profession and in every country, with the exception of Haiti," says the report for the impoverished Caribbean nation, warning that trained personnel are lacking to respond to any emergency.

In deadpan fashion, another report praises Maltese authorities at the expense of the Mediterranean island's closest neighbor. "Despite Malta's geographic proximity to Italy, organized crime is almost nonexistent," it says.

Although deadly, the Mafia, along with natural disasters and terrorists, should be the least of your worries outside the United States.

Automobile accidents cause the biggest portion of non-natural, non-combat deaths of Americans abroad, accounting for nearly a third of the more than 2,000 cases reported to the State Department between 2004 and 2006.

Thus, the department's Overseas Security Advisory Council places heavy emphasis on local motoring mores in the reports.

In the oil-rich Gulf nation of Qatar, the population of fewer than 900,000 racks up an astounding 70,000 traffic accidents per year, its report says.

"Drivers often maneuver erratically and at high speed, demonstrate little road discipline or courtesy, fail to turn on their headlights during hours of darkness or inclement weather, and do not use seat belts," it says.

Sound bad? Well, it may be worse in Tunisia.

"Among their many traits, local drivers rarely use lanes designated for turns, often cut across multiple lanes of traffic, rarely look before changing lanes, do not yield the right of way when merging, commonly run through red lights without stopping, and generally drive oblivious to other vehicles on the road," the Tunisia report says.

"Driving in Egypt," meanwhile, "can be a harrowing experience and not for the faint-hearted," the analysts opine.

In the historic center of the French city of Strasbourg, cars face nonmoving threats as "vehicle arson has come into vogue here with an unofficial New Year's Eve competition" among vandals wrecking numerous autos each December 31, the report for France says.

After accidents, assaults, suicides and drownings are the next leading causes of U.S. civilian deaths overseas, according to the State Department. Terrorist attacks claim far fewer American lives, it says.

Yet there are perhaps less well-known dangers lurking beyond U.S. borders.

Even the staid environs and clockwork efficiency of Switzerland can be risky, the analysts say.

"Being surrounded by the majestic, snow-covered Alps, combined with a pervasive sense of orderliness, it is understandable that travelers might forget that the city of Geneva and the adjacent cantons are not immune from crime," the report on Swiss security says.

Elsewhere, the lacing of drinks with date-rape drugs is common, but even without such adulteration, visits to watering holes far from home can be perilous, the reports say.

The U.S. embassy in Cyprus has ordered staff to avoid "cabaret girls," or "artistes," who work with unscrupulous bar owners to overcharge patrons in search of female companionship, the analysts say.

They add that the usually diligent Cypriot police are generally unsympathetic to victims.

But at least Cyprus has capable and respected law enforcement officers.

In nearby Greece, "police have limited ability to deter criminals" and "receive little support from the Greek government and even less respect from the Greek population," the analysts say.

In Laos, authorities may simply make up the rules, the analysts say, noting that "while the country does have published laws forming the basis of its law enforcement mechanism, the population is also beholden to unpublished laws and proclamations."

Closer to home, Mexico is not a place to rely on the local constabulary, they say.

"Reporting crime is an archaic, exhausting process in Mexico, and is widely perceived to be a waste of time."